The Etiquette Of Close Quarters

Like mildew, awkwardness tends to breed in enclosed spaces. Living or working in cramped quarters can create difficult situations for even the most socially adept of us. Today, we'll show you how to handle it.

A little warning goes a long way.

For some reason, one of my biggest social nightmares is having to squeeze past someone I don't know very well in a small space. I think it's because I'm worried I'll accidentally touch their butt and seem like a creepy harasser, even though I just wanted to get some tea or something. I spoke to Christine Brun, syndicated columnist, interior designer, and author of Small Space Living, who explained what may be behind my fear: small spaces create a forced physical intimacy with people we might not ordinarily want intimacy with. The solution? Words. Don't do what I do and sort of hover awkwardly until you think you have an opening and then jump for it, only to bash against the other person's shoulder. And don't invade their personal space without asking. Instead, give a simple verbal warning. Melissa Kirsch, author of The Girl's Guide To Absolutely Everything, advocates brevity:

Develop a shorthand for "Get the hell out of my way." Maybe it's a lighthearted "On your right" the way they do on the ski slopes (after you get your own apartment, get a condo in Aspen), something quick that serves to alert your roommate that you're passing by, but doesn't brook a lot of inflection or meaning so you can keep the transaction dispassionate and all business — just passing by, not making a federal case out of the fact that you're always in my way and don't you ever go out, if you can lie directly in my path talking on the phone to your mom the least you could do is wash a dish every once in a while. Which is to say, tight quarters call for brief, utilitarian communication to keep the peace.

At work, something more formal may be called for:

[A] simple and lighthearted "Pardon me," should do it. I like "Pardon me" because there's a little formality there that is sorely lacking in modern society. It helps redress the balance when half the office is wearing flip-flops and Daisy Dukes and texting during meetings.

Make your voice sound nice.

When you're delivering your verbal warning — or alerting someone to your presence so they can let you squeeze by — friendliness is your friend. Says Kirsch,

It's all in the delivery. Never has such an allegedly polite utterance been used for such evil as the deceptively humble "Excuse me." We've all been victims (and probably perpetrators) of the exasperated "Excuse me" (oft-accompanied by a stage sigh); the "Excuse me" that secretly means "Excuse you!", usually
deployed as a means of schooling the brute who just smacked you with her oversize Goyard tote; or the high-pitched, sing-song "Excuse me!!!" that betrays just how taut it is possible for nerves to be just before they snap.

Her alternative:

I'm a fan of a humbly delivered "I'm sorry" before you push through, which might seem like overkill, but which evinces compassion and an understanding of how annoying it is to get out of the way for someone. I also like the humanity of "Hey, could I squeeze by?" which contains a greeting and telegraphs that you are going to try to cause as little a ruckus as possible in your intrusion.

At concerts and other crowded venues full of strangers, I tend to use "I'm so sorry," delivered in my sweetest possible voice, and usually people move aside without offense. For coworkers and other people you already know, some variant on "could I squeeze by" may be more appropriate — but in any case, camouflaging whatever annoyance you feel may be a good strategy. It's not your roommate/coworker/fellow Decemberists fan's fault that you're packed together like sardines, and acknowledging this can make you both more comfortable.

Say thank you.

Did somebody move out of your way, allowing you to reach the bag of English Teatime that will enable you to get through the workday? Go ahead and thank them. Says Kirsch, "A follow-up 'Thanks!' is a nice habit to develop and can do much to mend the social fabric, should it have frayed a little when you slipped by."

Say you're sorry

Look, things break down from time to time. Even if you're careful, you're probably going to bump into someone at some point. It may not be as bad as that time in high school when I accidentally grabbed my teacher's boob while trying to raise my hand (how was I supposed to know she was standing right over me?), but you've created a little discomfort, and it behooves you to defuse it. Says Kirsch,

"Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry," with some low-impact eye contact is a reasonable way to communicate contrition. The "so" implies that you know how intrusive it is to be bumped, jostled, or otherwise handled by a stranger; it's a lovely little flourish of empathy. You don't need to apologize more than once or shrive yourself — one sincere declaration should do it.

Oh, and don't make things worse by getting all handsy:

By no means should you, as a woman did to me this morning on the subway, touch the person you ran into repeatedly as a means of proving how sorry you are. You already fell on top of me. I forgive you, but if you keep putting your clammy hand on my bare knee to communicate just how sorry you are, I'm going to get irritated. I get that you feel bad, but get out of my personal space as fast as possible.

Try a little humor.

Especially for roommates, Brun recommends having a sense of humor about your inevitable collisions. She advocates "here we go again" or something similarly lighthearted as a way to acknowledge that yep, you just bashed into each other again and nope, it's not a big deal. You don't want to trivialize the other person's annoyance or unnecessarily invade their space, but if you can establish that every little fender-bender isn't cause for a freakout, you'll be a lot more comfortable.

Be considerate.

When you're living or working together in a small space, there are lots of little ways you can make your compatriots' lives easier — and thus make your life easier by reducing conflict with them. I talked to Kent Griswold of Tiny House Blog, who points out that clutter can be especially problematic in small spaces. It can also increase the likelihood of someone else banging into you or your stuff. To reduce this possibility, he recommends "keeping everything to a minimum and using only what you really need." Also, try to avoid trespassing:

Everyone needs their own space. This can be a specific area to call your own or to escape to. Depending on the size of the space, it may only be a bed or a desk but that space needs to be used only by that particular person and others should respect that space.

If you keep your coffee cups off your office-mate's desk, you'll both be a lot happier. Griswold also has some other general tips for being considerate to those who share your quarters:

Be more attuned to the noises and distractions you create. Use headphones for music. Keep your phone calls to a minimum and if possible take them outside of the room or space. Keep your voice down. Be aware of the other noise you create, such as cooking, cleaning, etc. Above all think of others and of what you are doing and how it might affect them.

Kirsch offers one final tip: "Deodorant. It can make up for a multitude of smaller transgressions."

Small Space Living
The Girl's Guide To Absolutely Everything
Tiny House Blog

Image by Steve Dressler